Evolution of Science Outreach

The Controversial Beginnings of Reed's Student Teaching Program

Presence in the Present

“[Science Outreach] has these two epic goals and is completing them together. It’s self-perpetuating awesomeness, basically,” explained Presence O’Neal, the newest staff coordinator of the science education program. Presence is the latest coordinator in the program’s 22 year history, and the first to not be a Reed alumnus. As for the two epic goals? “Reed students get teaching experience in the real world ... and simultaneously elementary students get mentors and exposure to science from people who look like them and care about their learning,” said Presence.

On the surface, Science Outreach seems fairly straightforward. Reedies from any major are dispatched to various Portland schools once a week to deliver hour-long, hands-on science lessons. Current curriculum includes lessons about salmon ecology and life cycles, the chemistry of bread, and energy transformations. A program that simultaneously offers a service learning experience for college students while giving children in public schools access to exciting and engaging science lessons may seem like a no-brainer, but the history of how Science Outreach became what it is today reveals a great deal about changing attitudes toward extracurriculars at Reed, the politics of funding, and how one controversial program can demonstrate what it takes to change an institution over time.

Currently, there are roughly forty Reedies in the program this semester, collectively teaching over six hundred fourth- and fifth- grade students per week. “I would like the community to know we’re making a big impact,” Presence said. “I am floored and inspired on a daily basis by Reedies’ passion, dedication, creativity, and willingness to look like total goofballs for the sake of sharing their privilege.” Past lessons have involved making observations about salmon eggs raised in the classroom and later released into the Willamette, crafting Rube Goldberg machines, and learning how to test the pH of local water sources. In addition to being fun and engaging for elementary school students, Reedies benefit as well.

“I wanted to [participate in Science Outreach] since I first came to Reed,” said Outreach teacher and psychology senior Clio Goldstein, ‘18. “But I kept putting it off, thinking I was too busy or wasn't a good enough student to be a teacher.” After hearing about how much a fellow Reedie learned from teaching in the program and that teaching less familiar topics complimented her studies, Clio decided to join her senior year.

Clio has taught at three Portland schools, Ventura Park, Grout, and Pioneer, and was impressed by the variety of experiences and individuals she encountered. “I don't presume to know exactly what [the kids] get from Science Outreach, but what I hope I'm doing is demystifying science. A lot of people view scientists, and by extension science itself, as some kind of secret club for only the very special, when in reality, anyone curious and willing to try hard should be able to become a scientist should they choose.” Participating as a teacher has reaffirmed Clio’s interest in developmental psychology and taught her the confidence and skills needed to work with children in and outside the lab.

Reed’s program is one of a kind; most small liberal arts colleges don’t have science outreach programs at all. For students interested in teaching as a career, there are usually very few opportunities to test the waters and practice teaching lessons independently without fully committing. Science Outreach is unique in that it allows college students to actually teach in front of a classroom. According to Presence, the most challenging aspect of the program is designing curriculum that Reedies with minimal teaching experience will feel comfortable with that is simultaneously engaging, hands-on, and developmentally appropriate for the elementary schoolers. “On top of that,” Presence said, “our program partners with schools free of charge. We don’t ask for any money, which means Reed values science education so much that they’ll pay for the service learning opportunity and the science education.”

This was not always the case.

Science Outreach in Peril

Now that Science Outreach is forty student-teachers strong and has a stable source of funding, it can be hard to imagine that such a popular and beneficial program was in danger of extinction a decade ago. In the spring of 2008, Lindsey Arnold, then the Science Outreach coordinator, wrote a letter requesting funds needed to keep the program alive preceding a stack containing dozens of letters of support from principals, classroom teachers, Reed Outreach teachers, and elementary school students themselves about why they cared about the program and asking President Colin Diver to fund it.

In one letter, Outreach teacher Casey Hurstell said, “I cannot really find the words to describe the feeling I get when I stand in front of a classroom and see the students’ excited faces. My first semester at reed had been hard, I felt burnt out and lonely. I joined Outreach my second semester and it became what I most looked forward to, and what I was most excited to come back to for my sophomore year.” One elementary school letter reads, “Dear President Diver, We think that you should save the reed college program and let them come back to teach us about science. Because we learned about good things.” The letter campaign was successful; the many voices in support of the program and those it benefitted were able to convince the 2008 administration to fund it through presidential discretionary funds.

Outreach Beyond Biology

Kristy Gonyer ‘10, first became involved in Science Outreach as a teacher when she was a junior in 2008, and later became an intern for the program coordinator. In 2011, Kristy returned to Reed after working for Americorps and was hired as the Science Outreach program coordinator on a six month grant. “I was so lucky at the end of those six months. Diver thought this was a really important program, one we couldn’t let die. So for years it ran on discretionary funds, and it was completely up to the president.” Later on, Science Outreach was added into the college budget by Nigel Nicholson and President John Kroger.

At the time, there was little to no training available for Reedie teachers, and the program taught third- through eighth-graders a single common curriculum that changed every year and was based on a specific Reed biology faculty member’s research specialty. Under Kristy’s leadership, Science Outreach was narrowed down to focus on fourth and fifth grade, with set curriculums that stayed constant from year to year. The shift from biology outreach to Science Outreach happened during Kristy’s coordination as well. In the 2012–2013 school year, some students started their own volunteer chemistry outreach program funded with Student Body money. “I think they got $100 from student activities and used whatever the stockroom could give them. Eventually we decided it was silly to have two separate programs doing the same thing,” Kristy explained. Another focus of Kristy’s was making the curriculum more developmentally appropriate, an endeavor that has been continued by coordinators since.

Learning Beyond the Classroom

One of the things that continues to amaze Kristy, who is now the administrative assistant for Reed’s Biology Department, is witnessing how Science Outreach evolved from something that few people were interested in into a popular and highly-praised program. “Now there is much more acceptance and encouragement on campus for Reedies to do things beyond their coursework ... we have these allies across campus that tell their students to get involved.”

The culture of “academics or bust” used to be far more pervasive than it is today: when Kristy came in, the attitude that Reedies must focus exclusively on academics was just starting to change. To community members who believed in Reed’s academic mission above all else, Science Outreach was perceived as a threat. “I feel like I was at the tail end of that. It felt like you had to justify everything that wasn’t classes or homework. There was some concern among faculty that [Science Outreach] would take students’ attention away from their main focus, which was on classes.”

Finding a funding niche at Reed for programs not directly related to academics is a challenge, even more so a decade ago than today. During her time as a coordinator, Kristy found herself consistently underfunded and understaffed for what the program was trying to accomplish. “Aside from all the Reedies helping me keep the program alive, it was a one-person department ... There’s been a ton of change in these seven years. It’s kind of incredible.”

Bob Kaplan and the Origins of Outreach

The early years of Science Outreach were more fraught and political than is apparent in the version of the story I first heard, in which Bob Kaplan, population ecologist and Reed biology professor until 2015, felt that the science his kids were learning in Portland public schools was not rigorous or hands-on enough and decided to create a program to improve the science education available at the elementary school level. This record of events does not mention disagreements amongst the faculty, funding deficits, and the deliberate choice of placing the Outreach lab and office in a tucked-away corner of the basement of the biology building.

It was 1995. “We were a little bit pushed into it by the funding agencies,” said Bob Kaplan, now retired. “I had a daughter in elementary school at the time, the stars came together, and it was an opportunity to do something good for Reed and make connections with public schools.” Getting Reedies into elementary schools was far from easy. It took quite some effort on Kaplan’s part to develop relationships with public school principals and eventually classroom teachers. “The trust we developed carried [the program] through and we just kept working on it and piecing it together.”

In order to receive biology research grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), recipients were required to allocate a certain amount of the funds toward creating an outreach program. “We were successful in getting the budget from HHMI, but the budget was tiny,” said Kaplan. “So it was all volunteers, and I had these seniors in my lab who were really motivated to do it. They put their hearts and souls into it ... I got us in the door with the principals, but they actually went into the classrooms ... The talent of the Reed students themselves really carried the program.” In an atmosphere so focused on the life of the mind, there were relatively few programs at Reed dedicated to off-campus work or volunteering opportunities. “In hindsight, Reedies even back in the mid-nineties had [that commitment to] volunteerism. There was no outlet for that, and we gave them that,” said Kaplan.

While there was a lot of support from administrators and some of the biology faculty, others, especially older faculty members, were not convinced that sending Reedies off to elementary schools was what they should be doing. “In some of their eyes it wasn’t Reed’s mission, it wasn’t ivory tower enough for them,” explained Kaplan. In addition to skeptical faculty, convincing elementary school teachers that introducing inexperienced Reedies into their classroom was not a threat to their hard work was a challenge. At the time, introducing lessons that were not focused on a biology faculty member’s area of teaching was hardly imaginable, as was expanding curriculum beyond biology. “In the early days it was hard enough trying to get the biologists into it,” said Kaplan. “At that time, making it about science was more than my little heart and body could handle.”

Convincing the wider Reed community that Outreach was a worthwhile investment of time and funding was certainly rocky. “The hardest part was the day-to-day micropolitics, dealing with different people who for some reason or another were not keen on seeing the program succeed.” Even in 2014, when Kaplan decided to retire, he was concerned that the program would die out without his vigilance. Fortunately, developmental biology professor Kara Cerveny stepped in as the program’s faculty steward, and the program received administrative support as well. “Kroger assured me that he was not going to let this program dissolve, which was a heck of a lot different than other presidents,” said Kaplan. “[The administration was] able to leverage what was obviously a wonderful program to donors. But there were other administrators who were not into the idea at all.”

Lewis Elementary class with Reedie outreach teachers Casey Hurstell and Katherine Loera; this picture accompanied the class’ letters asking for further funding for Biology Outreach to continue in 2008. Courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College

Lewis Elementary class with Reedie outreach teachers Casey Hurstell and Katherine Loera; this picture accompanied the class’ letters asking for further funding for Biology Outreach to continue in 2008. Courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College

Investing in the Future

Kaplan praised the long list of coordinators who have contributed to the growth of Science Outreach over the years, fine-tuning the curriculum to different learning styles, making it more developmentally appropriate, and expanding the scope and topics covered by lessons. “In hindsight, it all goes back to thinking of all the people who supported or contributed to the success of the program,” Kaplan reflected. “Some I didn’t appreciate as much as I should have at the time, others were essential. Now I think, wow, that’s a lot of people who did good.”

As for what made the program possible in the first place, Kaplan explained that if he hadn’t been in just the right position to put effort into a fledgling program with considerable opposition, Science Outreach may well not have taken off at all. “I had tenure. It was an opportunity for funding, and [HHMI] said they really wanted to outreach to minority and disadvantaged students. It’s tough; I was in a really privileged spot at the time. If I had been untenured I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

Kaplan is optimistic about the trajectory of Science Outreach as well as what its history says about Reed as a community and institution. “The idea that there’s so much positive energy that Reed has brought to bear on social issues, including education, that I like to think of the Science Outreach program as being emblematic of how that can succeed, with enough people working together,” he said. Kristy is also hopeful about the future trajectory of the program, especially on a personal level for Outreach teachers. “Finding something that you really enjoy and that you’re passionate about outside of your coursework, that’s incredibly important. The more students get involved in that kind of thing, I think the stronger Reed will become in the end.”

The benefits of the Science Outreach program have been made clear time and again by the many people who care about its mission, from its founder to its various coordinators, the participants and teachers who wrote letters in the 2008 campaign to save it, and the current Reedies who get to share their passion for science education. “It got me off campus!” said Clio. “Science Outreach is a time when I have to put aside my worries about papers and labs to focus completely on teaching. I didn't think that was even possible until I had to do it, and by pushing me outside of my comfort zone, making me try new experiments or new ways of relating to people, I have gotten a lot better at applying those skills to the rest of my life.” Science Outreach goes far beyond the science being taught in elementary schools and can make a big difference in students’ daily lives, both for Reedies and the elementary schoolers. As for how to encourage new programs and pursue dreams beyond Reed’s academic mission? “I think you’ve just got to keep pushing ahead, if there’s an opportunity for progress to be made,” Kaplan said. “Institutions do move millimeters in lifetimes.”


Cover photo: Reedie teacher guides students on how to use a microscope in the early days of Biology Outreach. Courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College